Martha Carlson-Bradley


Poems Inspired by the 1727 New-England Primer
from a work in progress


The poems below are excerpts from a work in progress: poems inspired by the 1727 New-England Primer. As a fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, I had the opportunity to study a rare copy of this primer. Famous for its illustrated alphabet, the New-England Primer was published in the millions over the course of 150 years—and is, by our standards, a surprisingly dark text for young readers. All of these excerpts are meant to reflect a 1727 point of view.


            An Eagles flight
            Is out of sight.

None but God is swifter than Eagles.

And the Mother trains her Young
to feast, by example, on Blood —

and where the slain are, there is she.

The Eye of the child who mocks his Father
and ignores the words of his Mother

the ravens of the valley shall pluck it out.
And the young eagles shall eat it.

This one, flat on the page
as a Bird on a Flag, spreads her wings

and looks to our left, Side sinister —
though in her mind she gazes right.

How inky each Feather, Talon, the little Crest
atop her head: God’s creation.

When will she return to Earth,
this careful Parent — her Nest

a messy pile of sticks
black as a Clot in its Tree?

An Account of Time
Our Days begin with Trouble here.

       In an Hour are sixty Minutes.

Our life is but a span.

       In one Day are twenty-four Hours.

And cruel Death is always near.

       In one Week are seven Days.

So frail a thing is Man.

       In one Month are four Weeks.

Then sow the seeds of Grace whilst Young

       In one Year are three hundred sixty-five Days.

That when thou com'st to die

       Which are commonly divided into Months.

Thou mayst sing forth that Triumph song.

       The Year is divided into four Quarters.

Death, where's thy Victory?

       Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.

            The Idle Fool
             Is whipt at School.

Marching at full speed down the page

is either the fool or the master
who beats him — in either a dunce’s cap,
its tip bent down, or the linen one

he slept in. A scholar’s robe — or nightshirt —
he wears for all to see.

And perhaps he cracks a whip,
though its angle is sharp, the line thick
as the bottom edge of a book

flung open — the cover making
a sideways V: a letter that otherwise
never appears in this alphabet.

Venial. Victor. Verily, who

is the punisher — who the fool?
And what is the weapon he wields?

Early Signs

Leviathan's backbone breaking the Surface —

the stone Wall crests, through failing Snowbank,
God's intent obeyed as the tide of March
ebbs steadily:
                       Head and Tail, whatever Form they take,
hide in the Depths, each boulder in fields Beyond
white-capped. A fern preserved all Winter

floats up, seaweed on Rock, still green.

Elisabeth Grows Taller
Rampant, damp —

bindweed, knotweed, thimbleweed,
butter-and-eggs, bedstraw—

lovage. Unstoppable.

A darning needle lights
on Queen Anne's lace, its pallor

marred by one drop of blood.

Male fern, summersweet,
virgin's bower,


Near the maiden-hair
buds of swamp candles spray,

ardent as sparks.

Words for Older Students
Three syllables allow
more sound—and discord: Abusing,
Bewitching. Confounded
. But Godliness
and Holiness put in its place
the Impudent Kalender.

Four syllables offer advice:
Accompany Benevolence
with Ceremony. Discontented, we are—
despite examples given
Glorifying Humility:
let us think of our own

as words of five syllables
try to warn us: heed
Declaration, nay, Exhortation.
Fornication snares the unwary.

Habitation. Invitation
to turn the page:

In Adam's fall, we sinned.

© 2011 Martha Carlson Bradley


Martha Carlson-Bradley has published If I Take You Here, a chapbook released by Adastra Press in the summer of 2011; a full-length book, Season We Can’t Resist (WordTech Editions, 2007); Beast at the Hearth (Adastra, 2005); and Nest Full of Cries (Adastra, 2000). Her poems have been published in many literary magazines, including New England Review, Marlboro Review, Carolina Quarterly, Valparaiso Review, and Zone 3, and in anthologies, such as The Poets’ Grimm. Her awards include fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society and the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. She is a freelance editor and teaches in the MA in Professional Writing program at New England College. She has taught at conferences for the Frost Place, the New Hampshire Writers’ Projects, the Seacoast Writers Association, and other organizations and also leads the Book Club for Poets discussions for NHWP, sharing her comments on the book selections at
You can read more of her poems at